As Covid-19 continues to disrupt the world around us, the local government team at Agilisys consider seven big questions around the lasting impacts the pandemic could have on the sector.
1. Could a demand tsunami break the sector?
It’s clear that, post Covid-19, local authorities will have an unprecedented uptake in demand once the current crisis is over, as a result of the significant increase in unemployment, coupled with massive mental health issues coming out of this crisis (which isn’t getting sufficient coverage). And that’s before we even get to the lasting impact of domestic violence/sexual abuse and so on.
The focus over the past few weeks has rightly been on the immediate needs, but we are starting to see some authorities looking over the horizon and starting to put in place a number of measures to cope with the tsunami that is shortly to hit. This means already cut budgets will be further focussed on the needy and vulnerable, resulting in much more agile organisations, enhanced alignment with other bodies, coupled to a much greater reliance on technology to change working practices, automate and drive decision making.
The issue of resources is a key one. Critical services will still be required long after the less critical services are set to resume, so councils will need to very carefully manage those resources diverted to deal with the crisis and balance customer demand.
2. Should we expect member and officer roles to change permanently?
Covid-19 has clearly shown that when officers have no option but to make decisions quickly, they are very good at it (of course!). This doesn’t mean that the very important democratic role of members disappears, quite the contrary as their role is even more important given the much greater level of citizen data that will result from this crisis. That’s why, along with the need to facilitate digital communication, we expect fully digital councils to ensure members have good technology from the day they are elected.
Going forward, we do think that members and officers alike will look at their roles, resulting in a much more agile, democratic decision-making process. Given the challenges of the first point, the situation may force this anyway. This is likely to accelerate the long-overdue two-tier model discussions which are happening across the UK either overtly or covertly – and being played out in the national media as a County versus District scrap over funding.
3. Will transformation accelerate if roadblocks to change no longer apply?
We can’t think of a single CEO who hasn’t mentioned culture as one of the organisational change blockers. Covid-19 has, however, highlighted how there’s no longer any reason not to try and change. There is no excuse now for organisations not to change far more fundamentally and quickly than they’ve ever dreamed of before because the objections they’ve previously had just won’t hold water. Everyone said the whole organisation couldn’t work from home; well they just have. And the modern collaboration technologies which everyone feared have literally been a lifesaver; without it, authorities wouldn’t have been able to continue to operate.
A more immediate headache for local government is how to make some of the temporary changes more permanent, before we return to whatever the new normal is – and if there’s time to do it. Councils need to ask how they can capture the best bits of the new working landscape and ensure they are not lost in the stampede back to reality.
4. Can new levels of clean data change the way services are designed forever?
Response to the Covid-19 outbreak has brought data together like never before in just two to three weeks, and not just within the local authority setting – it is being shared across multiple agencies. This provides a massive and much-needed opportunity to build a better understanding of needs, to build predictive models for each of us individually across all services we consume, with maths supporting decision making on the best interventions to relevant groups such as the vulnerable.
We cannot see an affordable future without involving a high level of insight from data. We have in the past talked a lot about the potential of community – over 750,000 people have volunteered to help during this crisis, and we now have the data to match them to need. Equally we must be incredibly careful not to sleep-walk into a big brother–controlled state where our every move is watched.
5. Can we successfully view health and social care as one system?
Agilisys is in a very privileged position during this crisis to support both the NHS and local authorities in a number of areas – the one most will have seen is our ‘Helping Hands’ solution that tracks contacts with the vulnerable. What this has emphasised more clearly than ever is how health and social care needs to be considered as part of one system.
For example, the poor level of data matching between both bodies, and more crucially the clear interdependencies and clunkiness of the handoffs, are hugely costly and serve no one well, least of all the end-user. In our view this must be reviewed and reformed post the crisis and made an integral part of the increased investment in the health system that is inevitably going to happen. How data is used across borders and the role digital plays in this one system will, of course, be critical.
6. Will the new normal ways of working accelerate journeys to the cloud?
The outbreak has highlighted how the world can operate safely and efficiently from the cloud, and there is now more acceptance of cloud-based technology. Everyone is working at home, which will inevitably transform the way authorities operate to a much smaller physical base. We therefore expect to see an accelerated move away from large fixed assets and premises.
As a result, having an IT infrastructure that enables you to operate safely and securely in the cloud is a must, not least because it delivers enhanced resiliency. Linked to the need for a predictive capability as well as more robust business continuity/disaster recovery plans, this will inevitably lead to an accelerated journey to the cloud (which most authorities are already on).
7. Finally, is it possible for councils to leverage community goodwill to soak up demand?
The coronavirus outbreak has led to a far greater realisation of the criticality of services delivered by local authorities, which has been previously underrated. Therefore, respect for local government will be incredibly positive at the end of this, which we believe can be continued for a long time into the future. Coupled with the willingness of Great Britain to come together, which we always do in a crisis, we’ll see a transformation of the dynamic of our communities that will result in people getting them far more involved in supporting each other going forward.
It’s vital that we use the newfound confidence in the public sector’s capability to deliver (with support from the third and private sectors) – which we think will see rising interest in local infrastructure projects and connectivity.
There are, of course, many other things that could be added to this list, from the dramatically visual impact on the environment which will inevitably make people think differently, to use of technologies to communicate and come together as families and communities, to the sense of community which will have opened many people’s eyes to the needs of others, to plenty of wonderful acts of selflessness and so on.
It’s clear that the Covid-19 legacy will be far-reaching and drive multiple changes in local government – put simply, authorities must change if the upcoming challenges are to be met.
The way forward
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss how you think your local authority will change – and how the latest technology can help you get there.
That’s why we hosted virtual round table with key leaders from across the public sector to discuss these seven questions. If you missed out, you can still catch up on-demand.